'Welding' a New Economic Future in Buena Vista

Mar 15, 2018

A student welder works on a pipe at Byers Technical Institute, a welding school outside Buena Vista that opened in August.
Credit Jessie Knadler

A new welding school in Buena Vista has been awarded $200,000 from the state. The grant will allow the school to help close a critical shortage of skilled welders across the country. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler heads to Buena Vista to take a look at the new wave of welders who will fill a growing need for skilled tradesmen in the future.

Welding is a key part of nearly every major industry. Take the food industry. Raw materials – milk, beer, grains, whatever – flow down a pipe. If a weld in the pipe leaves a groove where bacteria can form, it can spoil the whole load. So the weld has to be perfect.

Byers Incorporated is a heavy industrial and commercial contractor in Natural Bridge that works partially with food grade piping.  The brothers behind that company noticed that the quality of welders applying for positions weren’t up to snuff. So they decided to open their own school so they could train welders to their own high standards.

[fade up welding sounds from Byers Technical Institute]

Enter Byers Technical Institute, a welding school outside Buena Vista that’s been open since August.

[fade up welding school]

Today, a group of about 10 young guys are working on a weld. One woman is also enrolled in the school but she wasn’t around the day I visited. And this weld that they’re working on, the integrity of it will be measured by X-ray.

REPORTER: What are you working on?

WELDING STUDENT: Piece of pipe

REPORTER: Is it hard, what you’re doing?

“Is it hard?” Arguably the dumbest question you could ask a welder.

WELDING STUDENT: It’s not so bad once you get the hang of it.

[fade down]

WALT JOHNSON:  An x-ray detects any flaws from the surface of the weld all the way to the root.

Walt Johnson is director of the school.  

JOHNSON: If a weld fails an X-ray it has to be cut out and redone. It can’t even be put into service.

The school’s debut comes at a great time. The industry faces a critical shortage of skilled welders, some 200,000 by 2020, according to the American Welding Society.  Most welders are nearing retirement age. Byers Technical Institute? It’s almost booked.

BRANDY FLINT:  We sat down with manufacturers and asked them what their needs were and a lot of what we heard was lack of skilled labor.

Brandy Flint is with the Office of Community Development for Rockbridge County. She’s part of the team that worked to expand course offerings at Byers by securing a $200,000 matching grant from GO Virginia.  It’s a state-wide business-led coalition that seeks to grow existing businesses in the state.

JOHNSON: That $200,000 that’ll come from the grant will let us buy new equipment, more equipment.  We’ll be able to expand and add more training booths. We’re going to be able to add a fulltime instructor, add hours to our part time instructor to help with our evening program.

As it is, Johnson says he’s having a hard time keeping up with industry demand.

JOHNSON: Companies are actually competing for highly skilled welding graduates right now.

And that leads to salaries. You can make real money in welding.

JOHNSON: I would be disappointed if a student left here without a $50 or $60,000 job offer. And the potential to go all the way into six digits is there.

The school’s early success points to a tilt toward more high skilled technical training. Rockbridge County high school students leaning toward the trades can take classes at Byers for credit. Flint again:

FLINT:  Once they graduate they’ll have about half of the program already done so they can continue directly out of high school without having to go to a higher educational institute of like a four year or community college if they don’t want to.  They can continue on with the technical training.

JOHNSON: If someone isn’t really sure their direction they’re going in, they want to be able to provide for their family, if they’ll come down and talk to us... We’re about every student walking in the door, leaving back out the door with a job.

Jobs—it’s what it’s all about it. And the icing on the cake?   The Byers brothers get a steady supply of skilled welders.